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Mozak screenshot
Mozak employs citizen scientists and gamers to trace the intricate shapes of neurons, as shown by the purple lines above, and to speed fundamental brain science research. (UW Graphic)

game called Mozak is turning thousands of Internet users into “tracers” who help neuroscientists map out the tangled circuitry of brain cells.

The citizen-science project was created by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in partnership with the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Mozak took a share of the spotlight at last October’s White House Science Fair, but the project is just now coming out of beta. In a news release, UW says results gleaned from the game have helped the Allen Institute’s researchers reconstruct neurons 3.6 times faster than previous methods.

Guided by online tutorials, the game’s tracers can produce neuron reconstructions that are 70 to 90 percent complete, compared to the 10 to 20 percent success rate for the most effective computer-generated reconstructions.

“New technologies have allowed us to create three-dimensional images of individual neurons, but our ability to catalog these brain cells, map their structure and understand the relationships between them has been shockingly slow,” said UW Professor Zoran Popović, director of the Center for Game Science. “There’s a big bottleneck in processing and analyzing the data coming in, which is where the Mozak community is making a big impact.”

Mozak, which gets its name from the Serbo-Croatian word for “brain,” gets bonus points for its ease of play and for its use of video-game sounds and a scoring system to keep players engaged. There’s also a chat function that lets citizen scientists check in with experts in real time. About 200 players are active on a given day.

The game takes advantage of the mouse-clicking wisdom of crowds to zero in on the patterns of a brain cell’s tangles, as seen in photomicrographs captured by the Allen Institute. Dendrites receive electrical impulses from other cells, while the cell’s axon conducts impulses out to other cells.

Axons and dendrites
These digital reconstructions of three neurons from a mouse brain show dendrites, in blue, that receive impulses form other cells. The axons, in red, conduct electrical impulses out to other cells. (Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Neuroscientists study detailed maps of axons and dendrites to get a better feel for how the brain’s circuitry works.

“Mapping and analyzing neurons will help us understand how their structure relates to brain function, both in healthy brains, and as hallmarks of disease,” said Jane Roskams, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia who has served as a consultant to the Center for Game Science as well as an adviser to the federally funded BRAIN Initiative.

But someone has to do the mapping, and that’s where Mozak’s citizen scientists play a role.

The online community aspect of the game is modeled after Foldit, another project developed at UW that has enlisted hundreds of thousands of players to catalog the myriad ways for folding protein molecules. Mozak is also reminiscent of Eyewire, a 3-D brain-mapping, puzzle-solving game that traces its roots to MIT and Princeton.

Mozak’s contribution to the tracing game goes beyond mapping individual cells: The tricks and techniques used by humans could someday be folded into smarter software tools for neuron reconstruction.

“To make the kind of progress we wish to make in understanding the functioning of the human brain, we will eventually need to fully automate this task,” said Stephen Smith, senior investigator for the Allen Institute. “But to further develop our artificial intelligence and computer vision tools, we need a vast amount of traced and annotated data of the kind that Mozak’s citizen scientists will be producing. They will provide the ground truth.”

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